From the Bottom Up: Balboa Art Conservation Center Seeks to Develop a More Diverse Future for the Field
By Bianca Garcia, Leticia Gomez Franco, and Annabelle Camp, Balboa Art Conservation Center
(Text originally published in Volume 45 Number 1 of the Western Association for Art Conservation Newsletter)
In November 2022, The Mellon Foundation released their latest report on Art Museum Staff Demographics, and conservation was once again shown to be tied for the unfortunate title of “least diverse sector” in the museum field. At 80% White, the sector’s demographics match that of Museum Leadership and is similar to the demographics of museums’ collections departments at large which is 77% White (Sweeny et al. 2022). There are likely many factors contributing to this, including the barriers to conservation education and the general lack of awareness about conservation among the public. When considering potential careers, few students know conservation is a career path. This is especially true among communities whose cultural heritage has been underrepresented within cultural institutions and who have been excluded from arts and conservation access.
For people to understand and aspire to a career in conservation, they must first understand and feel comfortable with art. Viewed this way, lack of awareness about conservation among the public is closely tied to a systemic lack of arts education in this country. Overall, arts education in schools has seen a decrease in funding and attention throughout the United States. Total U.S. legislative funding for art education in FY2021 dropped 17.9% from that of FY2020, and this represents a 38.7% drop from FY2001 (Mullaney-Loss and Rhee, 2021). This, however, does not affect all schools equally. Schools with a larger percentage of non-white students, low-income, and English learners saw a significantly larger decrease in the time spent on arts education. Title I schools– a federal education program that supports low income students throughout the nation– "are less likely to provide quality arts academic resources for further study, i.e. college and career prep, and artistic rigor standards'' (Krudwig, 2021). How can students from across the demographic spectrum have the same opportunity to choose a career in conservation when they all have not had the same access to the arts? In addition to this, we have to address the perception that conservation is niche and exclusive.
To diversify the field of art conservation, we must make the field accessible to underrepresented communities. This has been recognized, and there is an ongoing effort in our field to do so. Some of the better known conservation diversity initiatives include...
the UCLA/Getty Program in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage’s Andrew W. Mellon Opportunity for Diversity in Conservation, Winterthur/ University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation’s TIP-C/DIP-C/SIP-C Program, Yale University’s Student and Mentor’s Institute in Technical Art History (SMITAH), Smithsonian Institution’s Conservation Internships for Broadening Access, and the Getty Foundation’s Post-Baccalaureate Conservation Internships. But these are all for college-level students or recent graduates; for some, students must be enrolled in specific schools to participate (eg. WUDPAC’s TIP-C/DIP-C/SIP-C Program and Yale’s SMITAH are specifically for students enrolled in Historically Black Colleges and Universities) or have already chosen conservation as a career path and have some level of experience (eg. the Getty Post-Bacc.). Most of these programs seek to introduce conservation and provide some hands-on experience to underrepresented college students and recent graduates with the hope of swaying them towards a career path in conservation. For those who do not, the field will gain allied professionals knowledgeable in conservation. If the goal is to broaden access to conservation information and create awareness, then these programs are all 100% successful. This alone is a valuable outcome. If we want more program participants to choose a career in conservation, then we may want to think about introducing the concepts of cultural heritage, preservation, and conservation earlier in their education.
BACC’s Workforce Development Initiative
This is the premise behind Balboa Art Conservation Center’s ongoing Workforce Development Initiative. Funded in part by the Conrad Prebys Foundation, BACC is developing and implementing programming to engage students at all educational levels in conservation. The programming is being developed by Associate Paintings Conservator and Programs Manager Bianca Garcia, with support from Executive Director Leticia Gomez Franco, Kress Conservation Fellow Annabelle Camp, and former graduate intern and current WUDPAC Fellow, Adriana Benavides. Over the past year, the programming has taken multiple shapes, as we have responded to the needs of our educational partners.
This is part of BACC’s larger transition to become a responsive nonprofit conservation organization. Established in 1975 in San Diego, BACC is the only regional center in the Western Region of the U.S. As we approach our 50th anniversary in 2025, our vision is to strengthen and grow our organization’s capacity and relevance with the goal of becoming both sustainable AND inclusive. This vision is the result of extensive internal dialogue and self-examination. The outcome is the crafting of a new identity that questions what it means to be a nonprofit conservation organization today and into the future. Our new identity is highlighted by our new mission statement: The Balboa Art Conservation Center advances the study and preservation of cultural heritage for all communities.
How are we any different from a private for profit enterprise and how are we of benefit to our community if our primary focus is fee for service? The issue of fee for service in conservation is similar to that observed in the medical field: some patients get too much care, some not enough (Hunter et al., 2021). Translated to conservation, some people can pay for our services, while it remains inaccessible to many others. Museum professionals typically do not have to consider this, and professionals in private practice cannot give away their services for free. This is the gap that nonprofits are meant to fill.
We can also think about the types of services we provide. With a primary focus on benchwork for the past decade, our conservators felt that there was more they could offer. They also wanted to engage in teaching and community outreach and be more inclusive about who they served. The inclusion of public programming is not new for regional centers, as many offer some type of service program that is meant to be of benefit to cultural organizations and the public. Nonprofit regional centers are uniquely positioned to do this given their access to contributed income (aka grants) that can support this work.
Of all the regional centers, BACC bears additional responsibility to introduce the public, particularly students, to the field of art conservation. We are the only nonprofit publicly-accessible conservation organization located on the west coast with a vast service area that includes CA, WA, OR, AZ, NM, NV, AK, and HI. The majority of the advanced conservation training is located on the east coast, and that region receives the majority of recruitment efforts to introduce conservation to undergraduate students and K-12 students, leaving the west coast grossly underrepresented in these efforts. This further limits the accessibility to conservation awareness and education. Ultimately, BACC must intervene to fulfill this need. Under the new leadership of Leticia Gomez Franco, an experienced arts administrator, social justice advocate and community organizer, and with Bianca Garcia, who serves as the Program Manager for UCLA/Getty Program in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage’s Andrew W. Mellon Opportunity for Diversity in Conservation, as BACC’s newly appointed program manager, we feel we have the skillset to develop this programming intentionally and inclusively, as well as a deep and first-hand understanding of the impact and importance of this work.
The Conservation Education Toolkit
BACC’s idea was to develop a Toolkit to support educators in introducing conservation to students in a classroom setting, weaving the ideas of preservation and conservation into their already established lesson plans and curricula to prepare them for a conservation training in higher education or career settings. There are other conservation toolkits and K-12 education models in existence; they can be found on the AIC Wiki. The main issue we identified with these is that they are mostly meant to be used in a museum setting.
The Conservation Education Toolkit will be a series of teaching units that can be integrated into the syllabi of different classes, creating a modular system that can be easily tailored to the teacher and subsequent students. The toolkit will serve two different groups of educators and therefore students: public school teachers who will learn and teach the general ideas and principles of preservation and conservation, and college-level educators in museum studies programs who train undergraduate students who have already identified the arts and museums as a potential career, but do not currently know that conservation is also an option. Currently, BACC has three primary partnerships: at the elementary, high school, and college level. In all cases, a train-the-trainer model has been adopted with the idea that conservation education can be integrated into curricula. This is essential for establishing a sustainable model that is not dependent upon BACC’s ongoing intervention and for dismantling existing barriers to conservation knowledge.
The selection of partners for this pilot program was very intentional. We were not looking at private schools with existing robust arts programming, although that would have made this work easier. Our project partners are schools with a majority (70% or more) BIPOC student population.
BACC has partnered with the Visual and Performing Arts Program at San Diego Unified School District to implement a train-the-trainer toolkit. San Diego Unified is one of the largest public school districts in the United States and the second largest in California, with over 200 schools. It also is incredibly diverse with a 76% BIPOC student population. The school chosen as part of the pilot cohort is the Freese Arts and Culture Museum Magnet School, previously Freese Arts and Culture Magnet and now considered a museum school where students learn about and through art. BACC will be developing a curriculum that can be implemented at a fifth grade level. Their curriculum is set to be Project Based Learning (PBL), and some of the concepts introduced at this level are learning the knowledge and skills needed to properly care for artifacts and artworks, interpreting ideas communicated in artworks and exhibitions, recognizing differences in criteria used to evaluate works depending on formal elements and social contexts, and identifying how art is used to impact beliefs, values, or behaviors of an individual or society.
Herbert Hoover High School
BACC has partnered with Herbert Hoover High School as part of their 11th-grade Sustainable Academy of Building and Engineering (SABE) Program. Located in San Diego’s City Heights Neighborhood, Hoover High’s student body is 99% BIPOC. The program was inspired by a request for treatment of a white onyx sculpture located in the school’s library. Carved by Donal Hord in the 1930s, the sculpture, depicting a girl reading, was displayed outdoors prior to being relocated to the library. It is therefore grimey and has been graffitied.
When contacted for treatment, BACC turned the opportunity for a contract into an opportunity for a valuable semester-long program. BACC conservators are working with the educators to build a curriculum that integrates history, English, engineering, and chemistry while investigating the history and eventual care of the sculpture. BACC has presented to the 100 11th-graders participating in the SABE program to introduce them to conservation, where it fits within the arts and culture ecosystem, and the questions we must consider prior to undertaking a conservation treatment. The conservation team will work with students to answer these questions, touching on issues of materiality, art history, and ethics and guide them to formulating and ultimately executing a treatment plan. The intention is that by empowering the students to care for this sculpture they are accustomed to seeing daily, they will become increasingly committed to and engaged in the preservation of other art and cultural heritage throughout their communities.
San Diego Mesa College
Unlike our elementary and high school partnerships, where it is unknown whether students have an interest in the arts, our partnership with San Diego Mesa Community College (student body is 70% BIPOC) is designed to introduce the field to undergraduate students who have already identified the arts and museums as a potential career, but do not currently know that conservation is also an option. In this partnership, BACC is collaborating with professors in the college’s Museum Studies Department to draft a curriculum they can integrate into their existing classes. The curriculum is designed to provide students with an understanding of what conservation is and how it plays a role in the larger arts and museum spheres. Even if students do not pursue conservation as a career, preservation and conservation knowledge will benefit them in other arts careers. As part of their coursework, students will have the opportunity to visit BACC’s labs, but the primary goal is to provide the educators with the resources and information they need to make this a permanent component of the Museum Studies education.
Immediate Next Steps
These are just the first in what we hope will be a long list of educational partnerships and programs. By giving teachers the tools to integrate conservation education into their curriculum, we hope it will foster long-term and sustainable partnerships. Additionally, use of the Conservation Education Toolkit can prepare educators and students for direct learning experience on site at the BACC labs through student field trips and further benefit those who are drawn to pursue a career in conservation through internships and fellowships at BACC.
The program will not only nurture and foster future conservation professionals but also gain and train future professional allies. Exposure to this information means that not only do they now get to add conservation as a possible career choice, but regardless of whatever field they choose within museums, having knowledge of conservation will make our students better stewards of cultural collections and better able to advocate for their communities and institutions.
While we acknowledge that this is fairly new territory for the field at large and potentially a gamble for our small organization, we believe that as the only regional conservation center in the western region, it is our responsibility to develop a workforce and a field that reflects the diverse communities and collections of our service area.
Additionally, this is just one part of BACC’s larger transformation to become a sustainable organization that seeks in part to:
With the Conservation Education Toolkit, we can leverage our partnerships with local school districts and higher education institutions to capitalize on existing audiences. Once introduced to conservation as a potential field, our educational program, in conjunction with the other ongoing programs and efforts in our field, will play a fundamental role in the nurturing of a new generation of trained conservators that better reflects our nation's demographics and that will be better equipped to preserve the cultural heritage of ALL communities.
Hunter, Kaitlin, David Kendall, and Ladan Ahmadi. 2021. “The Case Against Fee-for-Service Healthcare.” Third Way. https://www.thirdway.org/report/the-case-against-fee-for-service-health-care.
Krudwig, Benjamin. 2021. “Arts Education Access in Underserved Communities.” ArtsHelp. Accessed February 22, 2023. https://www.artshelp.com/arts-education-access-in-underserved-communities/.
Mulane-Loss, Patricia and Nakyung Rhee. 2021. “State Arts Agency Revenues.” National Assembly of States Arts Agencies. https://nasaa-arts.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/NASAA-FY2021-State-Arts-Agency-Revenues-Report.pdf
Sweeney, Liam, Diedre Harkins, and Joanna Dressel. 2022. “Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey.” The Mellon Foundation. https://mellon.org/media/filer_public/c0/38/c038f6f7-4ced-45a0-a871-2d981804281c/artmuseumstaff_f.pdf